FORT MYERS, Fla. - You paid more than $8,000 to send three Edison administrators whitewater in Oregon in 2010 for a trip that "cannot be linked to one program," a Fox 4 investigation discovered.
It's been a rough couple years for students at Edison State College. Broken promises from administrators and high priced salaries pushed the school to the brink of losing its accreditation.
While thousands of students were left high and dry a Fox 4 investigation discovered you were unknowingly paying for top administrators to get their feet wet on an exotic whitewater rafting trip 3,000 miles away.
Fox 4 has been calling and e-mailing one of those top administrators for six months trying to find out how the trip helped students. When we didn't get an explanation we decided to pay her a visit to get you answers.
"Kristen, Matt Grant with Fox 4," said the Fox 4 reporter looking to get answers from Dean Kristen Zimmerman, who ducked into a copy room.
Zimmerman stood with her back facing the wall. Not only did she not want you to see her face she didn't want you to see pictures from a whitewater rafting trip she went on in 2010. She told organizers of the Whitewater Institute to not send photos of the trip to us.
But we got our hands on them anyway from a participant. One photo shows Zimmerman in a life jacket, smiling, with both arms raised in the air.
"Mr. Grant you can exit this office, thank you," said Zimmerman.
"You have nothing to say?," asked Grant.
"I have nothing to say. Thank you," said Zimmerman.
But Zimmerman had plenty to say online right after the trip writing a gushing endorsement on the Whitewater Institute's Web site about how she "overcame" her "fears", describing the experience as "life changing" and a "joyous ride."
"I'm a little jealous," said Jon Howard, a freshman. "I wish it was me."
"It must be nice to go whitewater rafting on us," said Kevin Santiago, a sophomore.
"What's in it for us? I want to go whitewater rafting," said freshman Sabrina Aguirre.
"What if I told you you paid for this?," asked Grant.
"I'd be highly upset," said Aguirre.
Fox 4 requested and received receipts from this trip and discovered you paid more than $8,000 in 2010 to fly Zimmerman and two others out to Maupin, Ore. for a four day conference on mapping program outcomes - meaning: are students learning what they're supposed to when they graduate?
"Did you have a fun time?," asked Grant.
"Yeah," responded former Edison Dean Kevin Shriner, who attended the trip and says it taught him lessons about leadership.
"It seems like you guys got to go on a taxpayer-funded whitewater rafting trip," said Grant.
"I think if you look at the components of the trip," said Shriner, "that would probably be somewhat of an accurate statement."
Shriner defends the trip saying he and the others learned lessons on the water that taught them to be better leaders at Edison like "you can't make it down the river without a guide."
He says faculty weren't the only ones who benefited.
"Can my students, using water metaphors, can they float through my program?," said Shriner. "Can they get through without hitting a log jam or a hurdle?"
Current president Dr. Jeffrey Allbritten wasn't in charge at the time. All we wanted to know is if he would allow similar kinds of trips to happen again in the future. Despite saying on his first day in office that "it's all about transparency," he declined through a spokeswoman to talk with us.
When we asked the college how this trip benefited students they told us, in part:
"A conference of this sort cannot be linked to one program or single initiative," said spokeswoman Teresa Morgenstern.
Morgenstern went on to say the "content...permeates throughout the culture" of the college. Shriner, who said the trip was helpful, admits there may have been a less exotic and less expensive way.
"Could you read it in a textbook? Probably," he said. "Is it better to learn things firsthand? Yeah."
But he and the others could have learned firsthand the year before when Edison paid $5000 to bring a speaker from the Whitewater Institute to the college for a two day "crucial workshop" for faculty on the same subject.
Shriner says he has no regrets. But what does Dean Zimmerman have to say to you? Getting that answer was like riding the rapids.
"Just help us understand how this rafting trip benefited students," asked Grant.
"Mr. Grant I've asked you to leave my office," said Zimmerman.
In her endorsement of the program on its Web site, Zimmerman says the trip "changed" her "forever." It's also changed how students see her and other administrators who have left them feeling soaked.
"I wish I could go on a free trip," said Aguirre. "Can she pay for my trip to Oregon?"
This conference was facilitated by Dr. Ruth Stiehl and her associates. Dr. Stiehl had been brought to Edison State College the previous academic year by our then VP, Dr. George S. Atkins, to conduct program mapping workshops on assessment with the professional and technical studies faculty and administrators. The conference focused on numerous assessment activities and strategies leading to implementation of success and retention strategies for faculty and staff to implement. The content of a conference of this sort cannot be linked to one program or a single initiative. Content related to assessment permeates throughout the culture and is present in most all programs and initiatives.
Other attendees related this material to direct course assessments and program level assessments, but I do not have access to the examples of work generated as a result of their attendance. Additionally, professional development activities were facilitated by each of the attendees through multiple venues through the Teaching and Learning Center, staff meetings and initial QEP trainings.
Colleges and universities send representatives to conferences on a regular basis to exchange ideas and information on a variety of topics, ranging from best practices to educational trends. These conferences provide a focused opportunity to hear from national and internationally-recognized experts in their respective fields, in addition to the chance to network with fellow professionals. What is learned from these conferences can be brought back to the institution and shared in order to continually enhance the educational opportunities of the students a college/university serves. At Edison State College, a great example is the QEP(Quality Enhancement Plan), now called the Cornerstone Experience, which addresses the needs of increasingly diverse, first-time college students, many of whom are unprepared. A version of the initial framework for the implementation of the QEP was drafted while in attendance at the White Water Institute Conference.
Colleges and universities want to provide as broad an experience as possible for their students, including international study opportunities. As we move more into a global society and business environment, this is a valuable experience for students. Edison State College will continue to be open-minded with a willingness to explore new educational opportunities for our students both locally and beyond.
Whitewater Institute's Web site
Read Zimmerman's endorsement